A Whole and Divided Heart 2

 

We had a layover in New York for a day before the El Al flight, and spent it with our friends, Kathy and Bruce. I’ve known Kathy since kindergarten in the Midwest, when, as five year olds, we rode the bus to town from our respective farms, one north, one south, to start our academic careers and a life-long friendship. They came to take us from our hotel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where we saw an exhibit of life in Jerusalem from 1000 – 1400. I confess that now, in my jet-lagged state, I remember little of that vast exhibit, but I won’t forget seeing one of Maimonides’ books, written in his own hand! Having the book inches from my fingertips continues to amaze me. To see the handwriting of one of the greatest of minds ever — those even, precise lines across the page — was as if he had been in the room only a minute before and had just set down his pen to leave for a bite of supper!

The other object that stays with me was the Venetian Marino Sanudo Torsello the Vecchio’s, Book of Secrets, (1307-1321), a source of information on geography, history, ethnography, and commerce. If Sanudo was not as well-known as his contemporaries, Petrarch and Dante Alighieri, his was still a great accomplishment. Even with this it was sad to learn that Sanudo was the first among the bigoted pro-Crusaders to thoroughly explore the possibility of an economic blockade as an action of war in the Holy Land of the time. The first BDS movement??!!

Kathy and Bruce, finished off the day by taking us on a tour:  down 5th Avenue, through Greenwich Village, and into the Lower East side where, on that third night of Hannukah, we double parked while Steve ran into Yonah Schimmel’s to pick up latkes and knishes (potatoes and kasha. Yum!). He was happy to take part in a tradition: his mother, during a sojourn in New York in 1938-39, used to eat there.

 

A Whole and Divided Heart 1

 

We started the first step of Aliyah, the trip to the airport from Logan, on 25th December 2016. During the night a heavy snowfall dumped ten inches of wet snow. I went out just before sunup to shovel our driveway and sidewalks, and after, learned our flight would be delayed at least three hours because of the weather. If not exactly at the time planned, we were to go from heavy mountain snow to Mediterranean breeze.

Both tension and excitement, joy and sadness accompany travel, even more poignantly during emigration. I’ve wondered at the way the last minutes before a departure endow clarity. In those fleeting moments at home in Logan, when I stopped to lean on the shovel and look up at the snow-covered mountains, breathe deeply of the crystalline air, I realized with new eyes my children, grandchildren, and friends were nearby and other family and friends were at least in the same country. Replete with gratitude and yearning, I longed in those moments to be in two places at once. My community in Logan and my sojourns/previous stays in Israel seemed to have fallen on me through no credit of my own. As a poet whose name I can’t remember said, “[it felt] like a miracle come down on the breakfast table”.

Love and amity:  a gift.

In the same moment of thankfulness, I knew I had at least two homes. I knew that in Israel I would yearn toward Utah, to be with our middle son and his wife and children, with the widow of our eldest son and their children, with friends, and within fairly easy reach of other family. And once in Utah I knew, in turn, I would yearn towards Israel, our youngest son and our many friends in cities, on kibbutzim, in towns and in the army.

Utah. Family dinners, days with the grandchildren and children; Shabbat studies with our havurah; snow!; visits with our good and generous neighbors, hiking the Bonneville trail, Brith Sholem nearby . . .

Israel. Sharing our youngest son’s life; visiting the Kotel where, with thousands of other names, all our children’s names rest in hope for safety, with thanks, and, for the lost one, in grief. Israel, where the land meets the sea and reflects the restless stability so much a part of almost any human’s existence and the sweet moist air softens the skin; where Friday, Shabbat, and Sunday dovetail in a triumvirate and more of beliefs, and we spend the weekend with friends on the kibbutz. Israel, where everywhere I turn, Hebrew, which I work so hard to recall from deep in my memory —

all of this, I’ll leave it too and I’ll feel the same gratitude as I felt leaning on my shovel knee-deep in the snow of the Bear River Range.

Emigration/Immigration is a choice, a difficult choice because when you arrive, you have also left and when you leave you also arrive.

Many don’t understand, but it is your life to love Utah and to love Israel, and you travel, ever thankful, ever aware a person may have more than one home, and so, will carry them always on the compelled journeys of a whole and divided heart.

In the poem “Renascence,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:

. . .

The world stands out on either side

No wider than the heart is wide.

Above the world is stretched the sky –

No higher than the soul is high.

His Feet Were Wings, His Beautiful Head a Compass*

I usually think of travel as getting in the car or boarding a plane and going away from home. Recently, I’ve found those journeys, however long, are never as far-reaching as the inward ones. This year, out of habit and to find new perspective, I traveled again to the Middle East for another two-month volunteer stint. There, working, I continued on another journey, the longest I’ve ever undertaken: an exploration of the inner country of grief, caused by the loss of our son to cancer.

Some months earlier, on a late morning during shiva, just a few days after Dov’s death, I lay in the grass in our backyard eye level with the splash of spring violets across our lawn. Among the flowers, little bees I’d never noticed before flitted from blossom to blossom. Watching them a question rose and circled round and round in my mind: “Where are you, Dov?”

Witnessing the bees with the gentle astonishment nature often elicits, I sensed Dov’s spirit linger, hesitant to let go of earth, and I thought he might answer. He hasn’t answered, at least not in any way I anticipated, but as time passes, I hear the answer almost everyday.

After shiva, I spent a year in study, reflection, and therapy, and I began to realize that the question, “Where are you, Dov?” was more important than the answer. In the struggle of those months, I had to accept that neither I, nor anyone else, can answer it; and, as time passed, I realized that “Where are you?” inevitably leads to “Where am I?” Dov, in the newfound wisdom he must now have wherever he is, would laugh aloud to know I was figuring things out.

It’s not up to me to know what I can’t know, although I continue to think about an afterlife; but it is up to me to know where I am. Where do I stand now? What am I doing with the grief, with the memories, with the longing for a son I won’t see again as long as I live?

How has Dov’s death changed me? If I look in the mirror of grief, what do I find of use to this life, besides a bereaved face? How do I continue carrying the sorrow, not trying to recapture my lost son, but living in a way that honors his life? How do I make memory a catalyst to action in this world.

Dov and I talked together and wondered together about the afterlife, particularly during long, wakeful nights in the hospital. From childhood on, and even more intensely during the progressively difficult years with cancer, Dov’s answer to the question ‘Where am I’?  was without fail, an exuberant “HERE!” The same as when he was a boy.

To use the hackneyed phrase, he lived in the moment. If that led to a certain chaos of distraction, timing, and scheduling, to minor frustrations for those around him while he grasped the tail of each minute and ran with it, the annoyance was balanced by seeing such joy for life, which many long to have, but of which few are capable.

While many choose to sit and think about what’s next on the calendar, Dov was stopping to thank and chat with the janitors working in the hallway at the infusion room, or was telling a joke to the clerk at the front desk, or recognizing that the pamphlets a dismayed young woman was carrying signified it was her first day on the cancer ward and he could help alleviate her fear. He explored every encounter to find a laugh, a bit of fun, a meaning, a discovery of shared humanity. This habit of seeing riches dispersed in every minute stayed with him to his last breath. From his life-threatening, premature birth on, he used the seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years with a dizzying intensity.

I don’t mean to draw a Pollyannaish depiction of Dov, and he would not want me to. He spoke to me of the unease he felt when people made too much of him – even though paradoxically, he loved being the center of attention. He knew his intensity for the moment could be enticing and trying, that his great joy in life, his insistent expression of it, demanded time or effort others could not always and did not always want to give.

Simply, he stood in thrall to love of life, to his comedic gifts, which he spent his youth developing in repartee with his brothers and father, all of whom matched him for wit.

As he aged he continued to channel his delight at living through laughter and stories, sometimes, in his generosity of words, augmenting reality. I think his genius was in carrying the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood. It was his sweet remnants of narcissism joined to his readiness to take on the rough work of dying that made him the man he became in adversity.

With cancer close behind, shoving him in the back, Dov brought his gifts to fulfillment. If his laughter fluttered at the edges with anger, fear, fury, pain, that was okay. He realized in full, like his folklorist father taught him, humor can be a two-sided coin. We laugh about the things we take most seriously. For Dov, and for other cancer patients – no matter how graciously they skim over or belittle their suffering to put others at ease, behind the smiles and the self-effacements, and the I’m-doing-okays,  the torments of the illness are there in spades, and the concern is how to deal with them.

More outrageous and edgy every year, Dov’s comedic gifts transformed from a private genius for his own joy-pain, his own afflictions and those of close friends and family, to a gift for a whole community of patients, medical staff, caregivers. Dying of cancer, Dov gave life the complete attention of his complex character, shed of any desire for recompense. He opened his Facebook page to encourage communication; he sent his fine poems to everyone and anyone, he told stories, and when he was able, entertained wherever he was asked. He approached strangers to learn their stories, to create a tie, to say “we’re in it together”. He made community where it hadn’t existed. If he offended people with his FUCK CANCER shirt, I like to think the offense lasted only as long as it took them to realize which of those two words was the most offensive.

It was this flagrant, brazen laughter, shared and developed first with his father and brothers and then with others, that led him to the ultimate wisdom of love. His was a tenacious, resilient behavior: love as a force, love that ran headlong with abandon, love enacted with the brave elan of one jumping from a high cliff into the river below, yelling with a hoot of joy for being alive. If his hoot of delight was barbed by the gravelly sound of grief knowing he was leaving life, it meant not that he was diminished but that he was a complete man. It’s easy to see this kind of strength in the movies; it’s another thing to live it.

Where are you, Dov? Sitting in my office, the question, and the agony, come again, and again, I break down. I won’t stop wondering or crying until I die — and then, just maybe, I’ll find out. I hope more than anything I get to see you again, my son, some place where you exist beyond pain and yearning.

Until then the question will gnaw at me, and I know that just after it comes to mind, I’ll catch a fleeting vision of your smile and an echo of your laugh, and I’ll remind myself that today, on this earth, I have to ask not Where are you, Dov? but Where am I?

 

* Paraphrase from Roman Payne

 

Another Side of Israel

 

When I finally overcame  jet lag, my husband and I went to see the movie “Philomena”.  A journalist, Martin, and the main character, Philomena, are traveling together seeking her son, who was taken from her and adopted out by nuns a few years after the baby’s birth. As Martin and Philomena are driving along, she asks Martin if he believes in God.  He answers that it’s a complex question and would require a complicated response that would take a long time to answer.  He turns and asks her if she believes in God.  “Yes,” she replies without hesistating.

Besides being a land of technology and innovation, Israel is a land of many faiths.  It is a Jewish State in which, by law, there is freedom of religion.  Officially, the State recognizes five religions:  Judaism, Christianity (10 separate sects), Islam, Druzeism, and Bahai, and unrecognized religions are also free to practice.  Percentage wise this breaks down to 75.4 percent of the over 7 million people in Israel are Jewish, 20.3 percent are Muslim, and the other 4.3 percent are the other groups.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs assists all the affiliations and contributes to the repair and preservation of holy shrines.  All holy shrines are protected by the government and all are accessible to pilgrims,and religious institutions get State support and funding.

Most of the people of faith with whom I come into contact are Jewish.  When I think of people of faith I know, three stories stand out.. The first is about a man with whom I work.  He is an energetic, jovial man in his 50s, who loves people, laughter, and conversation. He and I were talking and complaining about taxes one day when an announcement came over the radio about someone winning a million shekels.  I asked him what he would do if he won.  With no hesistation, he answered, “I would buy a Torah for my synagogue.”

It seems simple, but in the days after that short conversation, I realized what I had heard.  With a windfall of a million shekels (about $289,000), the first thing this man thought of was to buy a holy book for his community.  He would be fulfilling a traditional, but hard to fulfill commandment.  Buying a Torah scroll is not a modest purchase:  the scroll, the first five books of the Jewish bible, is written by hand on parchment.  It takes a year to write and costs around 103,926 shekels ($30,000).  That would be nearly half the winnings.

Another story came not directly to me, but through a friend.  A woman he knew on a kibbutz near the Jordan River had come with her husband from Europe to live in Israel.  In Europe they had tried for years and years to have children, to no avail.  A friend told them to move to Israel and they would have children.  They took the advice, moved to Israel, leaving a whole life behind, and before long were parents of two sons.

In the third story, a Jewish visitor to Israel needs to go to the police station on some business.  When she finishes, the police captain tells her that every time she comes to Israel it is a fullfillment of a commandment, so she should not only come, but she should move to Israel.  She tells him she can’t because of her son’s serious illness.  The policeman says “Bring him to Israel and he will be healed.”

These anecdotes deal with three of our most serious concerns:  money, birth, death.  It would be possible to collect similar anecdotes from any of the religions in Israel; Israel is a holy land to all of them.  Sometimes the stories would amount to simple statements of faith, sometimes they would point to action resulting in what appeared to be miracles, and sometimes perhaps they would raise questions of belief and how to carry out those beliefs.

Besides the scientific and technological innovations in Israel, and all the media coverage of politics and problems, there exists this other vital side:  mosques scattered throughout the country, Jerusalem’s many churches, the international center of the Bahai faith in Haifa . . . People of dozens of languages, faiths and beliefs, all stirring the universe for answers.

 

Israel

It’s soon the beginning of the second week of volunteering in Israel.   The group of volunteers of which I am a part is an eclectic bunch.  We’re a melange of men and women, young and old, from Switzerland, the U.S., the Netherlands, Canada, France, Spain, and the Czech Republic.  We speak a variety of languages and come from a variety of backgrounds.  One man was an engineer on a ship that brought displaced persons to Israel in the 1940s, one woman is a former member of a diplomatic corps, another young woman is volunteering while she considers joining the Israeli Defense Forces.  One man was in business in Africa for decades and is volunteering during retirement.

I’m working with medical supplies this time.  Medical staffs from Israel have been fast on the scene of world disasters, most recently in the Philippines, and I like to imagine that my very small work makes a difference to people who need help.  Last blog I mentioned some of the discoveries/advancements Israeli companies have made in medicine and other fields.  I think I forgot the ReWalk, the first commercially viable upright walking assistance tool, which enables paraplegics to stand, walk, and climbs stairs.

I always feel a sense of excitement here because Israel is still so new compared to other countries.  Even the infrastructure is still being created.  Railroads and new roads are being built, people are moving south and north away from the center to start new communities.  This makes for a sense of motion.  Part of this sensation is created by the social freedom one finds here.  Gender equality is enshrined in Israeli law.  Women pursue all occupations, and are the majority in higher education. On the issue of gay rights, Israel’s laws are more progressive than most other countries in the world, including the U.S.   Outside of any issues there is the the population itself:  it comes from all over the world, in a stream of colors and languages and cultural practices.

Back to work tomorrow.

 

 

 

Traveling Again

Traveling Again

A busy week.  Hanukkah begins Wednesday night; Thanksgiving is on Thursday, and then only a weekend before I leave for Israel.  Every trip, I promise myself I’ll be ready early, and every trip there’s chaos before I go: buying presents, running to the bank, packing.

Once I’m in Israel, I can relax and concentrate on the volunteer work with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) that keeps me busy five days a week.  On weekends I visit friends and family, travel a little, walk the beach, and eat great food in friends’ houses and in an eclectic assortment of ethnic restaurants. I just get a good dose of being in one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world.

The volunteer work I do is important to me.  I want to help in a real way, in a country that does so much good in the world.

As I write this, 150 Israeli doctors and nurses from the IDF Home Front Command are at a field hospital in the small agricultural town of Bogo on Cebu Island, Phillipines.  They are delivering babies, restoring sight to people blinded, treating diarrhea, fever, and respiratory problems in people suffering after the disaster of Typhoon Haiyan.

Like many other countries all over the world, Israelis send aid/personnel where it’s needed in times of disaster.  They were among the first in Haiti, they were in Turkey after the earthquake, sent food during the drought in Ethiopia–the list goes on.

At home, the Israelis are making changes by leaps and bounds in the world of medicine. “Save a Child’s Heart” performs free open-heart surgery for underprivileged children from around the world, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.  Forty-nine percent of these patients are from Palestinian communities, Jordan, Iraq, and Morocco.

Israelis developed an AIDS treatment that targets and destroys 40 percent of HIV-infected cells without affecting healthy cells.  Dr. Avram Hershko and Dr. Aaron Ciechanover won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on the regulatory protein ubiquitin.  There work will lead to finding new treatments and cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as well as genetic disorders.  An Israeli company, Given Imaging, pioneered capsule endoscopy, now the gold standard for small bowel visualization. The PillCam is an ingestible video camera that allows pain-free, noninvasive visualization of the small intestine and esophagus to detect disease. There are many many other advances in the field of medicine in Israel; simply put, Israel exports more life-saving medical technology per capita than any other country.

Next time from Israel, I’ll be talking about gay rights, gender equality and other aspects of Israeli life, and after that, some interviews with other volunteers from countries around the world.

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